Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Choosing the media streamer

Having recently upgraded my home audio system, the choice of which media streamer to go for was not a hard decision. There are a few different manufacturers out there producing different types of hardware that would result in completely different solutions. These seem to be categorised into roughly three areas.

First, you have the traditional hi-fi system manufacturers who are adding more modern media methods to their kit. Sony have the gigajuke systems with built-in hard disks, while phillips have the streamium systems. I discounted these fairly early on as being rather expensive and full of gimicks I wouldn't really care about or use, while not providing the full functionality that I really wanted at a price I was happy with.

Next there are the traditional NAS manufacturers who are upgrading their firmware to include media streaming functionality. This was slightly more tempting in some ways than a stereo system with this functionality built in. However, the lack of remote control or feedback without a PC switched on was very off-putting here.

What I really wanted was something to stream music from a PC to an existing stereo system that provided good feedback to the user with a remote control too. Enter the third set of devices, the dedicated media streamers designed to work with various media servers such as Firefly, SlimServer, iTunes, etc. When looking at these, my choices were quickly narrowed to a set of 3 possible candidates, in descending order of price:

  1. A collection of various Sonos hardware
  2. A SqueezeBox Duet from Slim Devices (now owned by Logitech
  3. A Pinnacle Soundbridge


I would have dearly liked to get my hands on the market leading Sonos which tops all the reviews while having the reviewer salivate over their nicely designed hardware, excellent interface and crystal sound quality. However, coming in at £700 sterling it seemed a bit expensive, especially as I would be spending more on another hi-fi system too, so it was reluctantly ruled out quite early on.

The next rejection waas the Pinnacle Sound Bridge, rejected for many reasons. It's easily the cheapest of the three on the list at under £100 though. I found it very difficult to find a dealer in the UK who had these things in stock so that was one rather off-putting factor - if there's no demand, then how good could the product be? The killer for me was when I compared to the Roku Soundbridge though. I found out Pinnacle license the soundbridge technology from an American firm, Roku, for marketing in Europe. That's all very well, except the European Soundbridge is inferior (much smaller and less usable display). This annoyed me to such an extent I felt I couldn't buy the European model and there are no American models for sale over here, except possibly some second hand ones on eBay.

Squeezebox Duet
The option I went for is the Slim Devices SqueezeBox Duet which seems like a really nice bit of kit, although not exactly cheap to buy either. It comes in two parts, the receiver box you hook up to your stereo system, and the remote control you use to browse and control the music.

The receiver is a pretty simple box, it has an Ethernet port, built-in wireless, RCA analogue audio output, and a digital output too. It sits on your network waiting for commands from the squeezebox controller and outputting any media streams it receives to a stereo (or powered speakers).

The controller is a little more interesting. It's also a wireless device, and has a jog wheel and LCD screen. Wireless means you don't have to have line of sight to the receiver, so you can hide the receiver away somewhere out of sight near your stereo. The interface is quite polished and very easy to understand. It's firmware upgradeable too so it'll only get better over time.

One of the things I really love about the SqueezeBox stuff is their openness. They use open source development to produce the SqueezeCentre (formerly slimserver) media streamer and as such it's got a nice little community of people outside the main company producing plugins to do all sorts of stuff as you can imagine. They adopt a similar approach for their firmware as well, while I've not come across the source code yet (I've not looked to see if it's available), the controller has some nice open type touches to it such as the ability to use your flickr pictures as the screensaver on the LCD screen when it's not in use. Overall I hope, and I think, I've made a good choice.

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